How To Teach Your Toddler To Sleep In Their Bed

One night about a year ago my husband and I woke up at 4:00 a.m. to the sound of someone walking into our bedroom. For one delirious moment, I felt like I was living in a true crime show (I watch way too many) as I saw a small person casually wander towards our bed. My terror turned to shock when I realized it was just our two-year-old who, at that point, still slept in a crib.

This was his first jailbreak. Definitely not his last. I brought him back to his crib, explained to him that it was still nighttime, and walked back to my room as my heart-rate slowly returned to normal.

His nightly jaunts started happening more and more over the following weeks. No matter how many times I told him to call for me if he wanted to get out of his crib, he would throw himself out of it. And I mean that. He would HURL himself over the edge onto the floor next to his crib. No fear. There would be a colossal boom and then he would start crying or would run out of his room.

I knew he wasn’t mature enough for a bed yet so we tried everything to keep him in his crib as long as possible. We put him back into a sleep sack which worked until he figured out how to take it off. We put the sleep sack on backwards until he figured that out as well. The day he gloriously catapulted himself to freedom, still wearing the sleep sack, and started crying that he had hit his head was the day I knew it was happening.

We were moving from the crib to the bed.

If your child is not an aspiring stuntman with no concern for the integrity of his or her bones, you will have the advantage of moving them to a bed when they’re ready. So that brings me to the first question:

How do you know when your child is ready for a bed?

The best answer is that the later they move, the easier the transition will be. Once your little one is old enough to ask about having a bed and talk about it with you, they’re mature enough to close their crib chapter and move on to their big-girl or big-boy bed.

Or, if you’re like me, you move them for another reason.

Whatever leads you to making this change, it usually comes with some challenges. If a little one wakes up in a bed in the middle of the night, they may want to come and visit you! Wait, you mean you don’t want to play or read stories at 2:00 a.m.?

Another issue is really early wakings. Now that your son or daughter can get up whenever they want, they’re more likely to wake up at some ungodly hour and think that it’s time to get their day started.

Bedtime can also become difficult. Some children will turn into your personal little jack-in-the-boxes. You put them down, they’re up, you put them down, they’re up, you put them down, they’re up (you get it), over and over and over again.

If you are running into these challenges, or want to be proactive and avoid them, there are things you can do to teach your toddler, ready or not, how to sleep well and spend the night in their new bed.


# 1: Loveys make the world go ’round.

As your little one is getting used to the space and freedom that comes with a bed, a new sleep companion can provide a sense of fun and comfort. Choose a stuffed animal for your son or daughter to sleep with that will make getting into bed even more exciting. If they have a favourite animal or favourite character, or even just a favourite colour, choose a toy that fits with their personality. Make sure it’s soft enough to cuddle and sleep next to and a good size for wrapping their arms around. A lovey that is too small may get lost in bed sheets so a medium to large-sized toy will work best.

# 2: Have a meeting.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “With freedom comes responsibility.” This is certainly true when it comes to a transition from a crib to a bed. Your little one now has a choice whether they stay in their bed or not. So how do you teach someone so young to do this?  The first step is to have a sleep meeting with them the evening of their first night sleeping in their bed.  If they’ve already moved into their bed, then let them know this meeting is happening because you know they’re ready to sleep like a big girl or big boy.  Tap into your elementary school days and grab yourself a piece of poster board. Put your child’s name at the top of it and a few short sleep rules underneath. They can be as simple as:

  1. Lay in bed
  2. Close your eyes
  3. Stay quiet
  4. Go to sleep

Decorate your poster however you would like (as you can see from mine, artistic skills are not required) and then have a quick meeting with your little sleeper.  Let them know how proud you are of them that they’re ready to sleep in a bed now.  Talk about how their ability to stay in bed quietly all night helps you to sleep well too, and when you sleep well you have more energy to play with them the next day. Tell them how proud of them you’re going to be in the morning. You can also let your son or daughter decorate the poster with you while you talk about sleeping in their new bed.

Put the poster in their room wherever you’d like and remind them of the rules when you put them to bed. Keep it light and fun, especially since they may not get it right the first night (or week) and we don’t want to berate them.

Finally, you can purchase some stickers that you know your little one will like and have them put a new sticker on their poster every morning after they’ve had a good night.

# 3: 1, 2, 3 o’clock…go back to bed!

With some practice, children can learn to go to sleep in their bed relatively easily. A bigger challenge is teaching them when it’s okay to get up in the morning. This isn’t just about making sure you get to sleep in. It’s important that a toddler can wake up, see that it’s still not close to morning yet, and give themselves the opportunity to go back to sleep. If they’re not sure what time it is, they’re more likely to fully wake up and leave their room to investigate.

But how do you provide a way for a toddler to see what time it is when they’re too little to tell time? The answer is…a toddler clock! These clocks communicate the time to children using imagery that is easy for them to understand. You can set the “okay to wake time” which is the time you think it’s reasonable for them to get up in the morning and the clock will signal to your child when that time has arrived by changing the image and colour that it’s displaying. The other critical element of a toddler clock is that it will use imagery to show the passage of time. With my son’s clock there are 12 stars at the beginning of the night and they disappear one by one until morning. That way he knows if he wakes up and it’s the middle of the night or if it’s almost time to get up for the day.

Word to the wise: It does take a lot of coaching to teach kids to pay attention to their clock. I told my son that it was magical and that Santa made it for him and, if I’m being honest, have threatened to call Santa and rat him out.

# 4: Return, return, return.

If your sweet little jack-in-the-box does keep coming out of their room, how do you respond in a way that doesn’t reinforce that behaviour? Well, you come as close as you can to not responding. You want any interaction you have with your child as a result of them not staying in bed to be as boring for them as possible. Any reinforcement, positive or negative, can lead to more of that behaviour. If you give them affection or yell at them, both reactions can lead to them continuing to get out of bed.

The best approach is to walk over to them and silently return them to their room. The less you speak to them or touch them, the better. Imagine you are a zombie (which, let’s be real, isn’t hard at 3:00 a.m.). Eventually, your little one will become bored and realize that, no matter what they do, they’re getting a monotonous walk back to their room.

# 5: Be their cheerleader.

When your son or daughter has had a good night, even if it’s just a minor improvement over the night before, make a big deal about it. It’s good to use really descriptive language. Rather than just saying, “Good job!” tell them how great you feel because they slept well and you did too. Stickers on a poster are fun and can help to motivate them but what your child really craves is your approval. Seeing your joy and your pride in them will boost their self-esteem and they’ll feel proud of themselves. When they experience success they’ll want more of it, so keep telling them what a good job they’re doing and they’ll keep on doing it.

No matter what you do, there is still a risk that your son or daughter will occasionally go for a midnight stroll. If you’re worried about them walking around the house while you’re asleep, you can always put a gate up to prevent them from wandering too far from their room or a small bell on their door should alert you to their nocturnal activity.

The more you reinforce your sleep rules, respond consistently to your little one coming out of their room, and celebrate their successful nights, the more your son or daughter will feel happy and confident sleeping in their bed from bedtime until morning. And then rather than being woken in a panic in the middle of the night, you’ll wake up to sunshine and a “Good morning!” from your proud, well-rested toddler.

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Rachel Ross

1 Comment

  1. Crystal on April 21, 2020 at 2:27 pm

    Great post!

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